My remaining two days in Brussels proved interesting and informative on a diverse array of subjects. I visited each of the main EU institutions, ate the obligatory dish of mussels and fries with relish, and saw Manneken Pis in an African outfit. Our multi-international crew, united through our common residency in Berlin, also proudly watched Germany beat Ghana on Wednesday! My roommate and I marveled at the displays of chocolate/whipped cream/strawberry & banana-topped waffles for the tourists, but privately decided the plain street waffles were the best. We took a tour of Cantillon Brewery, one of the few remaining traditional breweries in the world. Of course, the process is fully automated, but the famous sour “Kriek” beer is flavored with real pitted cherries instead of syrup, and ferments in old-fashioned oak barrels worth 800 Euros apiece. “Greuze”, the “champagne of Brussels”, did prove interesting to an unaccustomed palate, but delicious—surprisingly bubbly like champagne, but definitely belonging to the beer family.
Our group also made a pilgrimage to Planet Chocolate for a presentation on the unique production of Belgium truffles. Undoubtedly, the morsels doled out to those who answered questions correctly were delicious, but I am dubious that their chocolate is really better than Godiva, Neuhaus, Leonidas, or any of the other thousand Belgian chocolatiers that we encountered in the course of our stay. What Planet Chocolate did have in its favor, however, was that the lady giving us a demonstration solicited two group members to don caps and aprons and repeat the demonstration of making truffles, which provided a good half an hour of entertainment for the rest of us (although they did quite well and are certainly now qualified to become chocolatiers themselves if the economy doesn’t recover— there will always be a market for chocolate, at very least in Belgium!).
As to the more important uses of our time (though this point might be debatable as far as the chocolate shops go), we had opportunities to learn about the activities of the European Commission, to speak with a member of the Secretariat of the European Council, and to sit in on a plenary session of the European Parliament. In an attempt to avoid another unusually long blog post (no promises), I’ll simply focus on this last point. A member of the Communications Staff gave us an introduction to the European Parliament before we listened in on the session. The basics were unnecessary, as I’d managed to successfully grasp those in my classes about European Environmental Policy, European Union Economics, my current political science class, and our visits to the two previous EU institutions… the EU is unavoidable in Europe these days! I was grateful for the introduction, however, because she explained EU political parties and provided some background for the debate that we heard shortly thereafter.
As I understand it, having jumped into the middle of the plenary discussion (and having been greatly delighted and distracted by being able switch my translation device back and forth from French to German to English), the Parliament met to debrief about an EU Council meeting held last week. This meant that not only the President of the Parliament, Jerzy Buzek, was present, but Manuel Barroso, the Portugese President of the EU Commission—an unexpected treat for us. The key bit of information provided by the communication staffer was this: a number of British Tories, Italians, and a few other MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) split off last year to form their own political party, definitely of a conservative ilk. They call it the Party of Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD)—by which they mean that they support the freedom and autonomy of their own states from the EU.
In the course of the debate, one spirited British MEP chastised his colleagues for admitting Greece (and presumably Bulgaria would fit this category as well) to the European Union, knowing that the government lied and cheated. “My country does not use the Euro, and we never will, but we still hope the Eurozone experiment will be successful,” he stated, but proceeded to strongly imply that this is exactly what the Eurozone would not do unless member states used more common sense in choosing their economic bedfellows. His speech went further, questioning the penultimate purpose of the European Union and demanding what the Parliament itself was actually doing. (Remember, the EU has no actual power over the member states except using lawsuits to keep them accountable to their promises. Otherwise, it is incumbent on the member states to enact and enforce common EU policy.) He finished with a rebellious flourish, a prediction, and a gesture to his fellow party members, whose ultimate aim is to dissolve the very union in which their constituencies participate: “in the end, it will be we who will be the better Europeans.”
So there you have it. Most definitely not what I had expected from my first EU Parliament plenary session! Yet, after hearing the usual aggravated blunderbuss from a Green party member and the Utopian espousal of a French-speaking Leftist (“we are the envy of the world”), it was rather refreshing to hear my feisty British friend bring some practicality and accountability to the table. On the other hand, an eloquent report from (what I presumed to be) a security committee neatly and logically condemned Iran for its secretive proliferation of nuclear weapons, then urged the EU to take a speedy and appropriate response. An assessment of the economic crisis suggested that its effects would have been much more drastic in Europe without the Euro.
In the face of the evidence presented to me throughout this week and this year, I suggest that the truth likely lies in between the assertions of the Freedom Party MEP and the Leftist: like anything else, the EU has advantages and disadvantages. Since officials still refer to the “eurocracy” (an extensive bureaucracy indeed!) as an “experiment”, I believe it is good to demand accountability from the EU as such, even if the source if a parliamentary firebrand.
My apologies that I did not dig up the name of the speaker and make sure my quotes are exact. You may blame the demands of final papers “auf Deutsch” for monopolizing my time.
If you are curious, you can find more information on the website of the European Parliament, in German or English (or any other language you could possibly desire, really): http://www.europarl.europa.eu/.
For the website of the EFD, go here: http://www.efdgroup.eu/
This post was written on June 25th. Again, apologies for the delay in putting it up!